Black Star is a captivating short-film that explores why and how artists are prone to addiction. The documentary, which was created by Artists for Addicts, recently debuted at the Boston International Film Festival. Just last year, it won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Illuminate Film Festival. Check out our Q&A below with the film’s director, Akira Chan, to learn more about the movie, artists and addiction, his thoughts on both subjects, and his upcoming projects!
So Booking Cool: What inspired the score for Black Star?
Akira Chan: The story was inspired by the many artists we’ve lost to addiction, including legendary musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston….so the score had to reflect that. We could only use short snippets from their songs, which is why we created a frenetic montage at the end when the Black Star painting is created.
SBC: Is the title of the film inspired by David Bowie?
AC: Yes! Jon Butcher, the main character in the film, experienced a sort of artistic epiphany that connected David Bowie’s final album, titled “Black Star,” to the painting he was working on. In the film, the meaning behind this astrological term is revealed and it connects all of the various storylines.
SBC: What is the biggest takeaway you had from Black Star’s premiere at the Boston International Film Festival?
AC: (can’t comment on this since I did not attend, so here is an alternate answer) One of the unexpected rewards of showing Black Star in festivals, are the conversations that happen in the theatre. We almost always ask who in the audience is in recovery, or has a friend or family member suffering from addiction – and hands always go up. There is something safe and inviting about merging the subject of art and healing with the tough and often shameful subject of addiction, and it opens people up everytime.
SBC: Why do you think drug addiction is so prevalent among artists? Black Star raises the point that sensitivity and the deep emotions that artists experience plays a part in their addiction. But what about artists who are only in the field because of their talent and love for the craft?
AC: If we’ve learned anything in making this film, it’s that addiction is a very personal experience – so our focus on the link between art and addiction is really a hypothesis that fit the experience of the main character Jon Butcher, and Joe Polish, who came up with the idea of Artists For Addicts. Not every artist is an addict, and not every addict is an artist. There is also this unfair romanticization of the intoxicated artist who’s inspiration is fueled by drugs or pain. This is one of the reasons we focused on David Bowie, who reveals that after cleaning up from drugs, his music became better and he went on to produce for decades longer.
SBC: Do you think Hollywood is at all responsible for artists’ addiction?
AC: The film’s producer Joe Polish and I recently met a man who represented hundreds of major musical acts and some actors. He also helped start “Music Cares” – an organization designed to help rising stars deal with the pressure of performing at a very high level. From what he shared, and what we’ve learned – it’s impossible to link the root cause of addiction to any particular system or community. While there are hundreds of artists who we’ve lost to addiction (we discovered 300+ while researching for the documentary) there are thousands of others who work in Hollywood who do not suffer. It’s important to look at the individual who is suffering and then their environment.
SBC: This quote is highlighted in Black Star: “Nature doesn’t select for addiction. Addiction is a side effect.” What are your thoughts on this statement?
AC: This idea was shared with us by Dr. Gabor Mate, author of “Chasing the Scream” and one of the world’s leading addiction medicine specialists. The quote goes on to say that “Nature selects for sensitivity, and that is why so many artists suffer from addiction.” This is a complex idea but it points to more modern research around mental health and addiction. Many believe that addiction is a disease that is passed on genetically, but as we learn more about addictions ranging from opioids to sugar and gaming….addiction has a lot more to do with one’s environment and personal relationships. When those conditions are poor, addiction becomes a solution, a side effect – to numb the pain.
SBC: In your opinion, what have been some of the most devastating cases of addiction in Hollywood?
AC: There is a common thread of actors, musicians, and artists who became hooked on prescription medication, various drugs or alcohol. Their decline was sometimes public (Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston) or private (Prince, George Michael, Heath Ledger) but what’s most devastating is when the public has responded with shaming and scapegoating them.
SBC: How has the industry responded to Black Star thus far?
AC: We’ve shared Black Star with people very close to some of the artists featured in the film, and their response has been positive and supportive. The film’s message is to change the conversation from one of judgment to one of compassion when it comes to addiction. People who have seen the film have purchased prints of the Black Star painting, shared it with loved ones, and made donations to the outreach division of this project called Genius Recovery.
SBC: When did you become compelled to become a filmmaker?
AC: I first picked up a camera when I was 16 years old, and continued to learn filmmaking into my 20s and pursue it as a full blown career. But it wasn’t until later on that I stumbled upon some family footage of me interviewing my Grandfather when I was 11-years-old. He revealed some sad childhood memories in that interview.
SBC: Why is it important to you that your production company Rare Media makes films that center on entrepreneurs?
AC: Our production company loves working with creative entrepreneurs because they are focused on solving problems in the world. Most of our work focuses on inspiring and important messages that can help people in a number of ways. Taking an entrepreneurial approach to filmmaking not only focuses on the story being told, but also the outcome the story should achieve. That may be a service, a call to action, or a social movement…something that will grow beyond the film.
SBC: What were some of the challenges you’ve overcome when making Black Star?
AC: The biggest challenge was that prior to making the film, I had no personal connection to addiction. It was Joe Polish, the producer, who opened my eyes to how we’re all affected by addiction in some way. Addiction wasn’t something that was limited to society’s “moral degenerates” as the media portrays. The other challenge was the subject matter itself. Myself and our editing team watched hundreds of news segments, read dozens of articles, and listened to recordings from a number of addicts in order to understand the problem. It was a grueling but necessary process to peel back the layers of such a painful topic.
SBC: What is your number one hope that people will take away from Black Star?
AC: That art and compassion have the power to heal. Art being the way that we share and express the more difficult aspects of life, and compassion being a way that people can respond and support that expression.
SBC: How have you grown as a filmmaker since Black Star?
AC: This was the first time I had to take on a serious topic like addiction and present it in a way that viewers could be moved, and even inspired. I don’t believe you can ‘scare’ a viewer into taking positive action, which is what many films on addiction do. I do believe that you can present a serious topic in a thoughtful, compassionate and even artistic way that will open someone up to taking action. And that was something I became better at with this film.
SBC: What upcoming projects are you excited about?
AC: The Artists For Addicts project continues to grow and our plan is to expand it into a series, with Black Star being one episode of many featuring people who have used art to heal from trauma, addiction and life’s challenges.
For more information visit the official website for Artists for Addicts. Check out the trailer below!